How To Play Four-Ball Golf

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Four-Ball is a doubles format of golf that partners to compete in both stroke play and match play events.

The two partners make up a team with both golfers playing their own ball on each hole as they usually would, but the team score is the lower of the two partners on each hole

For example, if Golfer A makes a 4 on the 1st hole and Golfer B makes a 5 – the team score for that hole is 4.

You may also see this format referred to as Better Ball, Best Ball, or even abbreviated to 4BBB. 

The format is a popular one with one as it creates a competitive but more relaxed round of golf as you’re no longer dependent on your individual score and each have a partner to fall back on. Many golf clubs up and down the country use the format early on in the season as a way of easing golfers into the competitive season. 

The Four-Ball format has even made it to the professional circuit and most famously features in the Ryder Cup after being added to the bi annual match in 1963. It’s also played in the Presidents Cup and the Solheim Cup. The Zurich Classic, a stop on the PGA Tour in New Orleans, uses this format for 2 of the 4 days as well.

What’s the Handicap Allowance for Four-Ball?

Like all formats in golf, you can compete at gross or net (using your golf handicap). In most cases though, you probably want to play with golf handicaps which begs the question – what should the handicap allowance be? What percentage of their handicap should each player receive?

According to the World Handicap System if you are competing in four-ball stroke play or stableford competition, each player should get 85% of their handicap allowance.  

If you’re playing a four-ball match play game, your handicap allowance is 90% of the difference from the lowest handicap golfer in the match.

For example if you are a team of golfers, Golfer A with a handicap of 5 and Golfer B playing off 10, then you would play off 4 (5 x 85%) and 9 (10 x 85%).

If you played match play against another pair with Golfer C playing off 15 and Golfer D off 20, each player would receive the shots as below:

Golfer A (Handicap 5) – 0 shots (lowest handicapper)

Golfer B (Handicap 10) – 5 shots (10 – 5 = 5 shots. 5 x 90% = 4.5 / 5 shots)

Golfer C (Handicap 15) – 9 shots (15 – 5 = 10 shots. 10 x 90% = 9 shots)

Golfer D (Handicap 20) – 14 shots (20 – 5 = 15 shots. 15 x 90% = 13.5 / 14 shots)

Each player receives their shots according to the stroke index for each hole as they would in an individual stableford or individual match play.

How to Play a Four-Ball Game

Let’s take a step by step look at how to play a four-ball game.

Teeing off at a golf course in Portugal

Step 1: Determine your four-ball format (stroke play or match play), your teams, and your handicap allowance.

Step 2: All players tee off and complete the hole playing their own ball. NOTE: once you can’t beat your partner’s score, you can pick-up – you don’t need to finish. Your team only needs one person to finish each hole. Each player takes their shot allowance on each hole as defined by the stroke index.

Step 3: Only one score per hole counts. You can keep individual scores as well, but make sure you track the four-ball score clearly. In match play, your lowest score goes against your opponent’s lowest score to determine who won each hole.

Step 4: In stroke play, your final score will be the total of each individual hole. Player A could shoot 85 and Player B could shoot 83, but their team four-ball score could be 75. In match play the game is won or lost when it’s mathematically impossible for the other team to half the match.

Playing a four-ball match adds the excitement of cheering for your partner and being happy when they sink a critical putt! It is always a good idea to give your partner support – tell them “great shot” or give them a friendly fist-bump.

How to Win at Four-Ball? 

Just like all games, there are certain strategies that improve your chances in a four-ball golf game. Of course, you want to play each hole as well as you can, but here are some other things to consider while competing.

First, you need to pick the right partner

You want to play with someone that will help you when you need it. So pick a partner that compliments your style of play. Let’s say that you are a long driver of the ball, but occasionally get wild and lose a ball or find a penalty area. The perfect partner for you might be someone that is consistent and straight from the tee. 

In a four-ball match, many holes will come down to who can make that critical putt for birdie or par. It never hurts to have a great putter on your team.

Next, you may want to play more aggressively than normal, knowing that if you mess up, your partner can save the day. The risks you decide to take should be based on the situation. For example, if your partner hits a perfect drive down the fairway, you can really try to crush your driver. The opposite is also true – if your partner is having a bad hole, you might want to play more conservatively to protect the team score.

The best way to achieve a great four-ball score is try to dovetail well and pick each other up. If one player is struggling on a hole, the other partner needs to come through. You can play poorly on the day, but if you come through when your partner is struggling, your team can still come out on top.

As we mentioned, putting is critical to your four-ball golf score. 

One advantage you have in this format is “free putts”. What is a free putt? If your partner has already made par on the hole and you have a putt for birdie, it’s a “free run” or a “free putt”. Your team already has a par, so you don’t need to worry about making the par. It’s much easier to make an aggressive stroke if 3-putting is not a concern. 

As much as possible, try to give each other “free putts”. When possible, try to make your par putt before your partner tries for birdie. They are much more likely to drain it without having to worry about the one coming back.

Finally, you can always get better at the Four-Ball with a consistent partner and practicing playing the format

Did you know that most amateur team events (2 person) leverage the Four-Ball format? 

Practice it when playing with your buddies on the weekends and once you are comfortable, look for a local event and try it in a tournament.  Tournament golf can feel so lonely when you are out there competing on your own – a four-ball team event lets you test your skill, with the safety net of having a partner. 

Test out a few different partners and see which combination works the best. Maybe bring home a trophy? Four-ball golf is a great way to get more out of the game and spice up your weekend rounds.